Does this illustration ring a bell? It’s from a children’s book called ‘The Snowy Day’. Written in 1962 by Ezra Keats, a Brooklyn-born illustrator, this simple tale is still read by children today. I remember myself reading it in the 90s.
Keats’ illustrations are iconic and though you may not remember the title, you certainly remember the unique collage-like and ‘blocky’ style. But if its not familiar to you, the story focuses on a little boy named Peter enjoying a particularly snowy day. What makes this mid-century children’s book so special is that Peter is African American, visible against a white background in a society that was struggling with racial hatred. More importantly, Peter was the first black child protagonist in an American fully-coloured children’s book.
But Keats didn’t write this book purposely to be an radical message of racial tolerance, Keats was just dismayed at the lack of African American children in books. During his acceptance speech for the prestigious Caldecott Medal, Keats cited a series of Time magazine photographs of a young black boy as his inspiration for Peter. He told the Caldecott audience that this unknown child planted the seed for Peter’s character, one whom Keats would consistently refer back to. The thematic mix of childhood innocence, colour blindness, and the wish for a progressive American made Keats’ book extremely popular.
However, Keats encountered the criticism that his book didn’t utilise Peter’s character to address racial hatred in a radical way. Yet, I think that the timelessness of the story lies with the fact that it doesn’t directly concern the contemporary issues of racial tensions, it centres around one little boy who happens to be black. In the book, Peter is undeniably and unapologetically the star without one mention of his colour, and therefore Keats never makes Peter’s race something worth debating – he is there because he has a right to be.
In 2016 Amazon produced a TV film version of The Snowy Day, mimicking Keats’ unique artwork. The film stands as a testimony for Keats’ timeless work but also as a testimony to the unchanging need for equal racial representation in children’s literature and film.